What areas do you return to constantly?
There are two places. I try to make a pilgrimage once a year (more often if possible) to Hayden Prairie State Preserve near Chester in northeastern Iowa. It’s the largest (240 acres!) remaining black soil prairie in Iowa, which in a way is a heartbreaker. What must the unbroken Iowa and Illinois black soil prairies—waving in tallgrass, spangled with wildflowers—have looked like? It was one of the first prairies I visited after being taught how to look at a prairie. And it is named for my hero Ada Hayden (1884–1950), a botanist, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at Iowa State University, and an early proponent of saving Iowa’s prairies. My other pilgrimage grassland is the Nebraska Sandhills, which takes up a big chunk of north-central Nebraska. It’s the opposite of the tiny jewel of Hayden Prairie—three times the size of Massachusetts, a huge expanse of unbroken grassland growing on the largest dune formation in the Western Hemisphere. The first time I visited the Sandhills, I came home and told my husband we should move to Nebraska. He followed my advice. We lived in Omaha for seven years and got to the Sandhills two or three times a year.
How long have you been working to conserve natural areas and their inhabitants?
I can’t claim to have made much of a difference in conserving natural areas. Making a lasting impact in this arena requires a level of patience and fortitude I’ve never attained. I would categorize myself as an enthusiast, and maybe my random breathless bursts of enthusiasm for a particular landscape have touched the random bystander, but I rather doubt it. The conservationists I most admire are the ones who quietly, doggedly, eloquently make a landscape their cause. What they do is often exhausting, at times monotonous, and seldom applauded. Two small nonprofits that fit this description, and which I hold in high esteem, are the Iowa Prairie Network and the Prairie Plains Resource Institute in Nebraska.
What advice would you give to beginning conservationists?
Have more patience and fortitude than me. Pick a landscape you love and focus on it. Don’t expect the whole world to rally around your cause. Don’t be shrill.
What are the particular challenges of being a conservationist in the Midwest?
For a long time, I thought the biggest challenge was convincing everyone that prairies have intrinsic value. While that would be nice, it isn’t going to happen, and neither is it all that essential to conserving prairies. The challenge is organizing a critical mass of scientists, professionals (including government and private-sector people who know about agribusiness and real estate and farmers and ranchers who really know about agribusiness and real estate!), enthusiastic volunteers, and dedicated philanthropists. Fortunately, those critical masses exist and are thriving in the Midwest. They do face a challenge somewhat peculiar to the Midwest—which is the enormous challenge of reconnecting prairie fragments and restoring land back to prairie to create large, biologically robust grasslands. When I was working for the Nature Conservancy of Nebraska in the mid-1990s, the restoration ecology movement was gaining momentum across the Midwest. It was a great time. My personal high point, however brief, in restoration ecology was helping to organize some Nature Conservancy and Prairie Plains Resource Institute volunteers and together walking up and down some fallow fields along the Platte River, tossing locally harvested native prairie seeds from buckets we carried in the crooks of our arms. I moved on, but my Conservancy and PPRI friends are still out there restoring Platte Valley prairies, acre by acre.
Suzanne Winckler, author, Prairie: A North American Guide